MOSCOW — Sergei Bubka made it appear so easy that a crowd of about 40,000 at Lenin Central Stadium Tuesday night seemed stunned when the Soviet Union's most popular athlete chose not to go even higher. But for now, Bubka decided his latest world record in the pole vault was high enough.
As for how high that was, any European can tell you that it was 6.01 meters. That is one centimeter above Bubka's previous world record of 6.0 meters, which he set last year.
In feet and inches, 6.0 meters equals 19 feet 8 inches. On that, everyone agrees. But the record of 6.01 meters does not translate so easily.
Confusion was caused among Americans at the Goodwill Games by conflicting metric-conversion tables, one of which listed 6.01 meters as 19-8 1/2 and another of which listed it as 19-8 3/4.
Asked for a temporary ruling, Dr. Leroy Walker, president of The Athletics Congress, selected 19-8 3/4, which is the number he reported on the air in his role as an analyst for WTBS-TV.
Other TAC officials, however, speculated that a measurement would show the height as closer to 19-8 1/2. TAC is the national governing body for track and field.
Bubka could have solved the problem by clearing another height, one that is easier to figure in the Imperial system still used in the United States, but he is not greedy.
Asked later about his decision not to attempt another height, Bubka said: "There is time."
Indeed. Since February of 1984, Bubka has set 11 world records, 6 outdoors. After his performance Tuesday night, he has the four best jumps of all time and five of the best six. All of this before his 24th birthday.
When a reporter asked him to speculate on how high he eventually can go, Bubka smiled and said: "Higher."
Bubka's performance, coming 24 hours after American Jackie Joyner set the world record in the women's heptathlon, was the highlight of the third full day of track and field competition, although, in the hearts and minds of Soviet fans, it might have been rivaled by the stunning Soviet upset victory over the United States in the men's 1,600-meter relay.
Darrell Robinson, who ran the anchor leg for the United States, had a slight lead when he took the baton from UCLA's Danny Everett, extended it to three meters and then was passed in the stretch by the Soviet Union's Alexander Kurochkin. The Soviets were timed in 3 minutes 1.25 seconds to the United States' 3:01.47.
Veteran track and field observers could not recall another time when the Soviet Union has beaten the United States in the event at a major competition without the benefit of an accident, such as a missed handoff.
As the four Soviets embraced, the crowd chanted: "Fine lads, fine lads."
Moments later, after Bubka cleared the bar at the world-record height, the crowd chanted: "Fine lad, fine lad."
It was only Bubka's third jump of the night. Entering the competition with the world record of 19-8 that he set last year in Paris when he became the only man ever to clear 6 meters, he did not start in this competition until the bar reached 18-8 1/2. He cleared that on the first jump, then moved on to 19-2, which he also cleared in one jump.
By that time, he had no competition. His closest challenger, Radion Gataullin, who Bubka feels will be the next great Soviet pole vaulter, went out at 19-0. Earl Bell of the United States finished third after clearing 18-10, while another American, Mike Tully, was fourth with a height of 18-8.
Bubka asked that the bar be raised to 6.01 meters, which he cleared by almost a foot on his first attempt.
After being was surrounded by photographers, he put on his warmup suit and waved to the crowd, indicating that he was finished for the night.
As the crowd began to file out of the stadium, the public-address announcer said the awards ceremony would be postponed until today, if that was all right with the crowd, of course.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we want to consult you," she said. "Sergei Bubka has just set a world record. Outstanding, really outstanding. We want to present the award tomorrow, when the stadium will be full and the International Olympic Committee president, Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch, can be here to make the presentation. What do you think of that?"
The crowd was agreeable. As with all referendums in the Soviet Union, the vote was unanimous.
Samaranch's presence here is significant because many IOC officials have expressed reservations about the Goodwill Games, feeling they may eventually become a threat to the Olympics. Samaranch, however, recognizes the importance of the games to the Soviets and does not want to insult them as he attempts to persuade them to participate in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.